Tension builds in row over women’s entry into Hindu temple in Kerala

In this file photo taken on October 18, 2018 Indian Hindu devotees are pictured at the Lord Ayyappa temple at Sabarimala in the southern state of Kerala. (AFP)
Updated 13 November 2018

Tension builds in row over women’s entry into Hindu temple in Kerala

  • Hindu women demand their right of religious freedom as 41-day festival approaches
  • Kerala polarized over female entry into the hilltop temple

NEW DELHI: Tension in the air as Sabarimala Hilltop temple in the South Indian state of Kerala is being prepared to open on Nov. 17 for a 41-day Hindu festival.
The tension pertains to the entry of females between the ages of 10 to 50 into the ancient temple of Ayyappa, a deity who devotees believe is celibate and abhors the entry into the temple of women of marriageable age.
The Indian Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment in the last week of September, laid down a rule that bars the entry of young women into the temple. This led to a severe protest across the state, with women being stopped forcefully from entering the temple.
Last month, when the temple opened for six days, at least 12 women tried to enter the hillside temple but a violent crowd blocked their passage, with police looking helpless. At least 560 women in the barred age group have enrolled for the annual pilgrimage that starts in less than a week.
“We are taking all kinds of steps to see that devotees can pay their obeisance to the deity in a peaceful manner,” S. Sreejith, the Kerala inspector general of police, told Arab News.

Political mileage
Before coming to the temple, devotees observe celibacy for 41 days and avoid all kinds of meat and alcohol. They also don black robes for the period.
“The soul of any temple is the deity inside. The deity Aayyappa is a bachelor and that’s why the entry of young women is regulated in the temple,” says Rahul Easwar, a Hindu right-wing activist with close links to the Sabarimala temple.
Talking to Arab News, Easwar said: “We will never say anything against the Supreme Court. We are fighting for our rights to believe and our rights to have our own faith.”
However, women rights activist Kavita Krishnan claimed that “the entire controversy is clearly politically manufactured by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).”
The BJP is looking for political mileage in Kerala — the state where it is a small marginal player,” added Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association.
She pointed out that “the entire debate is concocted. It is well known that women’s entry was allowed until the 1990s, and it was stopped upon a court order. The Supreme Court order has only undone that order.”
The local government of Kerala, a coalition of communist parties, supports women’s entry into the temple.
Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, in a news conference on Saturday, said: “Opposition to changes in customs is quite natural. But there is no going back. Toilets, bathing facilities and accommodation facilities at Nilakkal will be set up for women devotees. The current crisis is temporary.”
K. Surendran of the BJP, however, said: “This is a matter of belief and the court should not interfere. Why does the court not interfere in the affairs of other minority religions?”
The BJP spokesperson in Kerala told Arab News: “The women who want to enter the temple are not devotees but activists. They are not believers.
“The local government is trying to polarize the issue by supporting women’s entry because it wants to gain the support of other religious minorities,” added Surendran.
Sandhya Acharya, a woman devotee who has registered to go to the Sabarimala temple, told Arab News that there is an “attempt to deny entry to women by calling them activists.
“Why should there be discrimination in the house of God in the name of gender?” she asked.
Rajesh Krishnan, a Kerala-based activist and intellectual, said: “The whole issue has polarized the society in Kerala. The issue has become all the more vicious after the BJP entered the debate and saw it as an opportunity to win over the people and make an entry into the southern Indian state.”
Around 42 review petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court and Tuesday the Apex court will decide whether it should revisit its judgment or not.


Police crack down on riots over citizenship bill for non-Muslims

Updated 12 December 2019

Police crack down on riots over citizenship bill for non-Muslims

  • Groups of protesters defied the curfew in Gauhati, the state capital, on Thursday morning and burned tires before police dispersed them
  • Police used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in 10 out of the state’s 33 districts

GAUHATI, India: Police arrested dozens of people and enforced curfew Thursday in several districts in India’s northeastern Assam state where thousands protested legislation granting citizenship to non-Muslims who migrated from neighboring countries.

Groups of protesters defied the curfew in Gauhati, the state capital, on Thursday morning and burned tires before police dispersed them.

Soldiers drove and marched though the streets to reinforce police in violence-hit districts, which included Gauhati and Dibrugarh, said state police chief Bhaskar Mahanta.

The protesters in Assam oppose the legislation out of concern that migrants will move to the border region and dilute the culture and political sway of indigenous tribal people. The legislation was passed by Parliament on Wednesda and now needs to be signed by the country’s ceremonial president, a formality, before becoming law.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for peace and in a tweet said: “I want to assure them — no one can take away your rights, unique identity and beautiful culture. It will continue to flourish and grow.”

The Press Trust of India news agency said the protesters uprooted telephone poles, burned several buses and other vehicles and also attacked homes of officials from the governing Hindu nationalist party and the regional group Assam Gana Parishad.

Police used batons and tear gas to disperse protesters in 10 out of the state’s 33 districts.

While those protesting in Assam are opposed to the bill because of worries it will allow immigrants, no matter their faith, to live in their region, others are opposed to the bill because they see it as discriminatory for not applying to Muslims.

The Citizenship Amendment Bill, seeks to grant Indian nationality to Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs who fled Pakistan, Afghanistan and
Bangladesh because of religious persecution before 2015. It does not, however, extend to Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled persecution in Myanmar.

Home Minister Amit Shah said it was not anti-Muslim because it did not affect the existing path to citizenship available to all communities.
Amnesty India said the legislation legitimized discrimination on the basis of religion and stood in clear violation of the India’s constitution and international human rights law.

“Welcoming asylum seekers is a positive step, but in a secular country like India, slamming the door on persecuted Muslims and other communities merely for their faith reeks of fear-mongering and bigotry,” the rights group said in a statement.

Several opposition lawmakers who debated the bill in Parliament said it would be challenged in court.

“Today marks a dark day in the constitutional history of India,” said Sonia Gandhi of the main opposition Congress party. “The passage of the Citizenship Amendment
Bill marks the victory of narrow-minded and bigoted forces over India’s pluralism.”

Its passage follows a contentious citizenship registry exercise in Assam intended to identify legal residents and weed out those in the country illegally. Shah has pledged to roll it out nationwide, promising to rid India of “infiltrators.”

Nearly 2 million people in Assam were excluded from the list — about half Hindus and the other half Muslims — and have been asked to prove their citizenship or else be rendered stateless.

India is constructing a detention center for some of the tens of thousands the courts are expected to ultimately determine came to the country illegally.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill could provide protection and a fast track to naturalization for many of the Hindus left off Assam’s citizenship list.